The father of a good friend told me a story about coming to Japan for the first time in the mid-’80s to attend a large conference. On their last day in Tokyo, he and several colleagues decided to splurge at a traditional fine-dining restaurant and experience true Japanese fare.
After arranging reservations for an expensive $350-per-person meal through their hotel’s concierge, they arrived at the small inn. Straining to sit on the dark-stained hardwood floor around a sunken fireplace, the men were eventually presented with individual braziers and an assortment of raw seasonal vegetables, fish and meat to be grilled swiftly by the customer, dipped in a tangy ponzu sauce and eaten not more than 10 seconds after having left the grill. Even the best home-barbecue cook among them had a difficult time not burning the potentially delicious morsels.
Most of the men gave up and waited for the courses to follow. A few more small dishes later, however, the meal ended with a bowl of white rice and some pickles.
His verdict on eating out in Japan: paying too much to sit on a hard floor, getting your hands dirty cooking your own food and going home hungry with an aching back.
In the West, a fine dining experience rarely, if ever, involves the customer cooking for his or herself — this is left to the kitchen and the chef. In Japan, however, audience participation in the form of cooking at the table is de rigueur. One of the best examples of the customers pitching in and doing some of the cooking, from autumn on through the cold winter months, are delicious one-pot dishes, nabe, named for the humble pot in which they are prepared.
Nabe, or nabe-mono, one-pot dishes in general, are the centerpiece of cold weather cooking in Japan. There are basically two broad categories: yose-nabe, a mixed pot stew cooked in a rich broth and eaten with a few garnishes in an individual bowl; and chiri-nabe, which is cooked in just water, or simple konbu dashi, in which the cooked items are taken out individually then dipped in a sauce, often ponzu, and then eaten.
When eating nabe at home, simple preparations can make the event a breeze. Most of the fish and meat may be presented at the table raw. For the beef or pork, any cut will work when sliced thinly, but pieces veined or marbled with fat (shimofuri) taste the best. Mild tasting fish, cleaned and filleted, may be cut into pieces small enough to cook easily. Some fish, like eel, must be blanched before serving. Leave shrimp and clams in their shells to impart a wonderful flavor to the soup.
Vegetables are simply washed and cut to size. A few that take longer to cook, like the sato imo, must be peeled and partially precooked before being presented at the table.
The final ingredient of great yose-nabe is the soup stock. Best results come with a good hearty katsuo dashi, but a light chicken or even a white veal stock may be substituted.
One of my secret garnishes that makes the dish really shine is called yuzu-kosho (citron pepper). Put a small dab of yuzu-kosho in your serving dish; no matter what your ingredients are, they will be well complemented.
300 grams beef or pork, thinly sliced
1 filet of sea bream (tai), sliced 5-mm thick
1 conger eel (anago), cleaned and blanched in boiling water
4 large shrimp (kuruma ebi), deveined
4 clams (hamaguri)
1 head napa cabbage (hakusai), washed and cut into large pieces
1 carrot, cut into wide thin strips
1/4 daikon, cut into wide thin strips
1 bunch spinach, washed and trimmed
1 bunch enoki mushrooms, washed and trimmed
4 shiitake mushrooms, washed and trimmed
8 sato imo (taro), peeled and par-cooked
2 packages of fresh udon noodles
For the soup stock
14 cups dashi, or light stock
1 cup mirin
1 cup usukuchi shoyu (light soy sauce)
1 bunch scallions, finely sliced
4 sudachi (citron)
ichimi togarashi (cayenne pepper)
1) Prepare meats and vegetables and present them on platters.
2) Combine stock, mirin and soy sauce and heat on stove before bringing to the table and continue heating on portable gas burner.
3) Add vegetables and meats, a few at a time, to the pot.
4) In individual serving bowls, add garnishes. As desired, ladle some of the soup and cooked ingredients into serving bowls and partake.
6) As needed, add more stock; the stock will get stronger as it cooks down, but the vegetables will give out water and thin it out.
7) When all the ingredients are gone, add the udon noodles.
Next week, blowfish chiri-nabe, followed by a chanko-nabe version, kawatare-nabe.